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Bilingual child: our expert's advice

Barbara Abdelilah-Bauer (linguist and psychosociologist), founder of the Association of Bilingual Children and Bilingual Coffee. As a specialist on this issue, in this interview, she gives us some valuable advice ...

Should we make a choice of language for bilingualism?

No of course not. We do not have to make a choice when we talk about early bilingualism. Languages ​​all have the same value when it comes to the mother tongue. A mother who speaks with her baby, whatever that language is, from Arabic or Breton, will not say to herself: I must speak French. There is no need to make a choice. One must speak one's mother tongue or the language in which one feels best with one's baby. Because, besides the words and the grammar that one transmits, there is also the tradition and the history which one makes pass.

This choice - it is sometimes imposed when monolingual parents want to learn another language to their toddler. Often it is English that prevails, because this is what we find most often in nurseries and schools. But otherwise, there is no priority of one language that is nobler than the other. The child bathing in a multilingual environment, will learn all languages, as if it were his native language.

What is the ideal age to acquire a second language?

The question does not arise for a child born in a mixed family. You have to speak both languages ​​from birth, there is no ideal age at that time, because bilingualism is acquired as a single mother tongue. If, for example, the child who lives in France, is in a monolingual family (other than French), he can start learning French at birth with a nanny, or at the nursery, later at school. kindergarten.

Until about 5 years old, the child will acquire this 2nd language in an intuitive and natural way without realizing it, as if it were his mother tongue. Of course, this is done by setting up interactions, not putting it in front of a TV show, for example.

After 5 or 6 years, learning the second language will be different. The child has sufficiently acquired the first language to know very well express itself. He will then approach a new language as a foreign language. We are talking about learning this second language. Indeed in this case, he will compare what he learns with what he knows of the first language. The mechanism of acquisition is different: he will try to understand words, then make sentences, etc.

There is no critical age, we can learn at any age. It's the way of learning that is different.

From what threshold of understanding / communication in a language do we speak of bilingualism?
Active bilingualism is distinguished from liabilities. The latter concerns a child who hears two languages ​​in his environment and understands them very well, but who does not feel the need to reproduce the second language and therefore speak that language. This can happen from the moment when in his environment, everyone understands what he is saying. Let us take the example of France where the dominant language is French, and the second language, the language of the family.
On the other hand, it has often been found that when the child finds himself in the country of the second language, with a family that only speaks that language, he will develop this ability to speak it.

Be careful, do not expect children to be active bilingual from the first day. You must be immersed in this environment for at least some time: it can go from a few days to a few weeks. Apart from this, the important thing in the universe dominated by French, is to maintain at least the capacity of understanding, creating an environment where children hear the other language and give them materials: books, dvd, music ...

Fashion is bilingual: is it a good thing to enroll children in learning structures outside the family context?

Yes, it can bring something. But you must know that acquiring a second language will not be done with sessions of one hour per week. It is a slow process and the contribution of this second language must be regular and sufficiently intense. This excludes from the outset all workshops that are done once a week. On the other hand, a bilingual school, ideally with half of one language and the other second language, would be a good way to learn. However, even with two hours a day, one can hope to learn things in the other language. Because you have to know that children do not learn the language but learn things in another language. It's the difference.

In fact, everything depends on what is expected of these early learning. We can not make promises to parents such as becoming bilingual by having one hour of classes on Wednesday afternoons. However, practicing a second language, even in small doses, makes them think, makes them aware and improve their own language. The other advantage is to make a foreign language familiar for later.

Can the children of two monolingual parents become bilingual?

Yes it is possible, especially if they have a nanny who speaks another language. Or if they go to a bilingual school, but at least from kindergarten to high school. Indeed, everything depends on the definition of bilingualism. The perfect or balanced bilingual does not exist. So yes, a child who will be immersed in an environment with a second language, even with monolingual parents, will always be more bilingual than those who have learned their second language in high school. It should be remembered that this is not done in 2 or 4 years, it is necessary to go to the minimum to the high school.

To read: "The Challenge of Bilingual Children" by Barbara Abdelilah-Bauer - Ed La Découverte.

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